News Categories: Parks & Trails

11 Nov
By: Communications 0

Winter Birding

By Matthew Abernathy
Assistant Director of Jones Park

Winter birding in southeast Texas is hard to beat. With mild weather and a bird population unique to Texas, the Gulf Coast region remains popular among birders of all skill levels.

The activity’s versatility is all part of the appeal. In fact, many birders create backyard bird habitats to birdwatch from their windows. Because seed production slows in winter, birds are always on the lookout for extra food. Adding feeders and a variety of food sources, like nectar and seed, can transform a once barren yard into a popular winter birding destination. Many lucky birdwatchers have even spotted rare birds from their window.

When choosing a bird feeder, keep in mind that birds come in all shapes and sizes, so offering different feeders and food options will support a more diverse bird population. If you’re on a budget, the internet is a great resource for tutorials to create do-it-yourself bird feeders.

Venturing out into the wild is often the next step in birdwatching, and there’s no better time than winter. The Gulf Coast region features wintering birds that aren’t found anywhere else in the world. Bare winter trees often yield clearer views of birds in their natural habitat, and an abundance of parks and natural areas provide an ideal setting to explore. Like many Texas parks, Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center offers information on recent birding observations and guided bird walks. Anyone interested in birding can benefit from a guided bird walk to learn more about the land, local wildlife, and ecology and to network with those with similar interests.

Park visitors are also encouraged to visit the pollinator garden near the Nature Center to explore native plants and view bird feeders that attract birds and other wildlife in the area.

Want to learn more? Learning the names of the area’s most common birds is a great way to get started. Jones Park offers monthly bird walks on the first Saturday of the month from September through May, beginning at 7:45 a.m. Bird walks are free and open to birders 10 and older. Those who would like to help track winter bird populations are invited to install a bird feeder and report bird visits to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project Feeder Watch.

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11 Nov
By: Communications 0

Folklore of Native Plants


With their vibrant colors and intricate designs, wildflowers and native plants have inspired countless stories and legends, from tales of an undercover fairy princess to a chieftain’s daughter who fell in love with the sun. These stories not only help us understand our earliest ancestors, but they also provide new perspectives on common native plants. We’ve rounded up a few of our favorite stories below.

Texas Dandelion

Native American legend tells of a beautiful chieftain’s daughter who fell in love with the sun. Each day, the woman climbed a hill to watch the sun as he crossed the sky. But despite her love, the sun never noticed her. As time went on, the young woman grew old, and her long hair turned gray and frail. Near death, the woman again returned to the hilltop to watch her beloved one last time. Before she died, the wind carried her hair away and scattered it across the land. Moved by her devotion, the sun covered her body with small yellow flowers. Each day, these flowers track the sun’s progress across the sky until they grow old and their seeds, like the old woman’s hair, drift away on the wind.





Legend has it that goldenrod was created by an ancient woman trying to make her way through a dark and forbidding forest. As the old woman struggled to walk, she asked each tree for help. One by one, the trees refused. Halfway through the forest, she came across a small stick that offered to help. Relieved, the old woman picked up the stick and continued her trek. She eventually came to the end of the forest and, as she emerged from the trees, she turned into a beautiful fairy princess. Turning to the lowly stick, she said, “For your kindness and help, I will grant you one wish.” The stick thought for a moment and replied, “I would like to be loved by all the children of the world.” The fairy princess sprinkled gold dust on the stick and chanted a few words, transforming it into a beautiful plant that still dazzles to this day.

Unfortunately, most Americans now avoid goldenrod. Because the plant’s bloom time coincides with ragweed season, it often takes the blame for causing allergy symptoms. But goldenrod is actually beneficial for both people and pollinators. With its small, nectar-packed blooms, the plant lights up fields and roadsides in the fall and has anti-inflammatory properties when used as a medicine.


If itchy, watery eyes and a stuffy nose plague you in the fall, chances are you have a ragweed allergy. The plant’s small, inconspicuous flowers produce large amounts of pollen that affect 10-20% of the population. Paradoxically, the plant’s generic name, ambrosia, means “food of the gods.”  Although despised by many, the plant boasts some surprising health benefits. Native Americans collected vast quantities of the seed for food and medicine. The Meskwaki chewed the plant’s roots to drive away “night fears.” The upper stems of the plant exude a red sap when cut that can be used as a stain or a dye. The Cherokee applied the juice to infected toes, and the Comanche, Cheyenne, and Cherokee used ragweed to treat colds, stomach aches, and even pneumonia. The plant thrives in disturbed areas, so most likely it wasn’t as abundant in prehistoric times.

Continuing the Tradition

Ready to learn more? Next time you’re weeding your flowerbed, look up the stories behind those pesky weeds. You may be surprised by how much these plants meant to those who came before us.



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11 Nov
By: Communications 0

Candle Making at Jesse Jones Park & Nature Center


Candles are common accessories in most American homes. They add ambiance, scent the air, and mark celebrations. But for pioneers, candles weren’t just another frill – they were essential for reading, cooking, sewing, eating, and socializing after sunset.

Because commercial candles weren’t available, and candle molds were an expensive luxury, most families created cheaper, hand-dipped candles with wax sourced from nature. Children, who were usually tasked with candle-making, collected wax from beehives or, more commonly, boiled fruit from the native wax myrtle tree to extract the wax. Although these candles smelled great, they were inefficient to make. Beeswax was difficult to find, and wax myrtle candles required 15 pounds of fruit to create one pound of wax.

Candles made from animal fat, or tallow, were more practical, but the candles didn’t burn well and smelled bad, especially candles made from pig tallow. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that paraffin wax was created from coal. The candle industry exploded as entrepreneurs invested in machines to mass produce candles out of the new, cheaper material. As the price of candles dropped, it became more economical to purchase candles.

Although we no longer need to make candles, the activity can still be a fun and inexpensive weekend craft for children and adults. Not only will participants end up with a useful and colorful keepsake, but the process is also an important educational tool for understanding pioneer life. To get started, check out the guide below.

Materials Needed         

Paraffin wax blocks

A large knife with a thin, sharp blade

Wooden spoons for stirring

A large tin can with wire handles to hold the wax

Yellow/brown crayons or candle dye for color

Old pots to make a water bath for tin cans

Wicks, pre-cut to 8 inches or longer

Glass jars for cooling water dips

Buckets of extra water for refilling jars and pots

A heat source like a stove (if you’re at home) or a well-built campfire

Fire extinguisher and heat resistant gloves

Making Hand-Dipped Candles

Cut the wax into small pieces so it will melt quickly. Place the wax pieces into a tin can with the wire handle facing up.

Fill your pot with hot water, and then place the wax can into the water pot. Heat the water to a simmer, making sure the water levels do not drop below a few inches. Avoid getting water into the wax cans, and do not let wax get into the water pots.

Stir the wax until it’s completely melted and move the pot away from the heat source. Ensure the water is warm but not boiling to keep the wax liquid.

Add color to your candles by dropping crayons or dye drops into the liquid wax. Add a little at a time until you have reached the desired shade, keeping in mind that wax lightens as it dries.

Next, take your wick and cut it to measure a little less than twice the length of the candle. To have something to grip, tie one end of the wick to a stick and tie the dipping end into a knot.

Begin building the wax layer by dipping the wick in the hot wax and then a jar of water to cool. Make sure to leave a portion of the wick free of wax so the candle can be hung up to dry at the end. Continue alternating between the two until your candle thickens. Because the wick will float on top of the wax at first, you will need to pull the wick straight after the first few dips to encourage a proper candle shape. Make sure you do not hold the wick in the wax for more than a few seconds because the candle will fall apart.

Continue this dipping and cooling process until the candle has reached 2 to 4 inches long and grown to at least the thickness of a thumb. Roll the candle between your hands to smooth any lumps.

Trim the thicker end of the candle with a knife so that it will sit flat in a candle holder. Hang the candle to dry by the wick. Once the candle hardens, it can be placed in a candle holder and used.

Maintenance: Reheat the wax as needed as it solidifies in the cans. Melt and dye new wax when necessary. Leave any leftover wax in the cans to be reused another day.

Make Safety A Priority

Never leave the candle making area unattended.

Watch children closely and assist young children. Hot wax does not boil or steam, so it’s hard to judge how hot it is. Do not let children stick their fingers in the wax.

Keep your work area tidy. Beware of any loose clothing and keep the ground clear. Cans of wax can be bumped and spill easily, causing serious burns.

In case of a wax fire, treat it as you would a grease fire. Do not throw water on a wax fire. Use a fire extinguisher. If the wax fire is contained in a pan, cover with a lid to limit oxygen and extinguish the heat source fire.

Never let wax come in contact with flames. Wax is extremely flammable. Remove melted wax from the heat as soon as it is liquefied. Do not let melted wax sit over the fire. Always use the water pot for melting wax, and never place a wax-filled container directly over a heat source.

Keep a close watch on the water pot, as water evaporates quickly and must be replenished frequently.

Do not pour leftover wax on the ground, down sinks, toilets, drains, or storm sewers. Leave wax in cans to solidify to use another day.

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30 Oct
By: Communications 0

Name That Flower: Midnight Horror

Native to tropical areas of Asia, this fast-growing tree reaches at least 30 feet tall. The plant only blooms at night and produces a fetid odor attractive to bats and other pollinators. Can you name this plant?

Midnight Horror

Oroxylum indicum

Meet Midnight Horror. The enormous seed pods of this unique plant (Oroxylum indicum) grow nearly 4 feet long. They hang from bare branches and resemble swords. This plant – popular in Asia – features edible leaves, flowers, and fruit.

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30 Oct
By: HCP4 Admin 0

FAQs: Monarchs and Milkweed

It’s no secret that butterflies love milkweed. The long-blooming plant features tight flower clusters packed with nectar, and the leaves are filled with a milky substance that caterpillars adore. But more importantly, monarch butterflies cannot live without it. Adult monarchs seek the plant for its nectar and lay their eggs exclusively on the plant during the warmer months.

Now that fall monarch migration is in full swing, we’ve compiled a list of your top questions about monarchs and milkweed. Learn about pollinator plants, the fall monarch migration, how to tag butterflies, and plenty of other information about these winged beauties below.

Q: The most recognizable form of milkweed in Harris County is the tropical or Mexican milkweed, which features yellow or orange flowers. What other types of milkweed are good for pollinator gardens?

A: About 35 milkweed species are native to Texas, and about half a dozen grow in the Houston area. For monarchs, the healthiest varieties of milkweed include green milkweed (Asclepias viridis), zizotes milkweed (Asclepias oenotheroides), and aquatic milkweed (Asclepias perennis).

Q: I want to grow Texas native milkweed plants from seed. What is the easiest way to gather the seeds?

A: Milkweed seeds aren’t viable if you harvest them too soon. Wait until the milkweed pod starts to open before stripping the seeds from the pod. If you can’t harvest the seeds right away, place a net over the pod to prevent the seeds from blowing away. To strip the fluff from the seeds, place the seeds in a bag with a few coins and shake. The seeds should settle at the bottom of the bag.

Q: Can I plant different milkweed varieties together?

A. Because most milkweed varieties have different growing conditions, gardeners rarely plant them in the same location. For example, green milkweed, which grows in low spots along rural roadways, prefers heavy, occasionally muddy soil, and the zizotes milkweed requires well-drained soil. Aquatic milkweed, as the name implies, grows in wet bottomland areas along the edges of ponds and creeks. Green and zizotes milkweed prefer full sun, and aquatic milkweed tolerates some shade.

Q: I’ve heard something about a parasite called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha and that it infects tropical milkweed. Should I be concerned about this?

A: Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (or OE) is a parasite first discovered more than 20 years ago, but it’s only recently received attention. OE is concentrated in non-migratory monarch populations in the Houston area. The parasite persists in the Houston area because of our mild winters and long-blooming milkweed varieties, such as tropical milkweed (red and orange colored) and native aquatic milkweed. To prevent the parasite from spreading, cut back your tropical milkweed before each spring so that fresh growth will be available for the spring migration. (Most local monarchs raised in the summer and fall are non-migratory.)

Q: Should I remove my tropical milkweed?

A: Growing tropical milkweed is fine, especially in areas with frost. If it doesn’t freeze, be sure to cut back your milkweed before spring.

For more information, check out the resources below:

(Information provided by Mercer Greenhouse Manager Jacob Martin, TMS Grower Brandon Hubbard, and Mercer volunteer Don DuBois)

Milkweed Varieties 


How to Grow Milkweed from Seed

 Want to grow your own milkweed? Check out this step-by-step guide for growing milkweed in the Gulf Coast area, including zizotes milkweed (Asclepias oenotheroides), aquatic milkweed (Asclepias perennis),  butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), and green milkweed (Asclepias viridis).

  • Rinse seeds with water.
  • Fill a resealable bag half full of sand and add just enough water for the sand to hold its shape. The consistency should be like a sandcastle, not too wet or too dry. Make sure to label each bag with the name of the species and the date.
  • Rinse the seeds and evenly spread them into the sand. Before sealing the bag, make sure to remove all air. Store the bag in your refrigerator.
  • Cool the seeds for at least 30 days. Note: Refrigerating seeds is a technique used to simulate the real-world conditions a seed would receive outdoors as winter turns to spring.
  • After at least 30 days, remove the seed bags from the refrigerator and start preparing your planting trays.
  • Fill a seed starting tray with high quality seed-germinating soil like Jolly Gardener soil, which we use at Mercer. (A 72-count cell tray is recommended.)
  • Dump your sand/seed mixture into a strainer and rinse with water until all the sand has been washed off. Only seeds should be left in the strainer.
  • Plant four to five seeds per tray about ¼- to ½-inch deep and lightly cover with soil.
  • Place the cell trays into a warm area or greenhouse. Water the seeds gently and evenly, using a watering wand or mister. Be careful not to displace the seeds with a hard stream of water. The professionals at Mercer use a misting table to water seedlings.
  • Keep the cell trays evenly moist until germination occurs, which should take about four to seven days.
  • After two to three weeks, the seedlings should be about 2 inches tall and ready to transplant.
  • Transplant the seedlings into 4-inch pots filled with high quality potting soil. Plant one cell per 4-inch pot. If there are multiple plants sprouted in one cell, do not try to separate them. The roots are very fragile and will not take well if damaged.

After about one to two months, the seedlings will be ready to plant in the ground.

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